Opinion: Autosport International showed how the sport is changing

The Autosport International Show has always marked an unofficial start to the season for motor racing fans, who flock to the Birmingham NEC in the UK for the annual extravaganza that once again this year proved to be a huge success.

But while the star attractions from Formula 1 – Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris – served to delight fans as they signed autographs and answered questions on the main stage, something highly significant regarding the future was taking place just a few steps away.

For amid the record crowds that attended Birmingham – nearly 100,000 people – there was one spot of the exhibition hall that was packed throughout, and it perhaps offered proof of how the motor racing landscape is changing.

Stretching across one side of the show was a huge Esports stage, which played host to a series of competitions and events over the Autosport International weekend.

Whereas once such interest in sim-racing may have only attracted the hardcore gaming fans, this year there was an ever-present throng watching the Motorsport Games live action, or taking part themselves on the special rigs that had been set up. Even Norris, Leclerc and Sky F1 pundit Karun Chandhok were spotted having goes at various times!

The crowd watches the action of the Rallycross eSports final

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

Lando Norris, McLaren on the simulator at the Le Mans eSports Series stand

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

A packed spectator area ready for the start of Rallycross eSports final

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

Over the weekend, special events from the Le Mans Esports Series qualifier, and the Dirt Rally 2.0 series finals, attracted huge crowds of onlookers, who were treated to some spectacular racing and last-minute thrills.

As fans crammed into all the available space there was to watch events unfold on the huge live screen, the atmosphere was electric at times – especially when incidents unfolded on track.

On top of the hundreds of thousands of fans who tuned in to watch the live events on Facebook, YouTube and Twitch, judging by social media feeds over the weekend, there seemed to be a fascinating shift in such Esports events becoming a truly accepted part of the motor racing landscape.

It is fast becoming clear that Esports is now very much an important part of the sport.

A fan uses one of the Le Mans eSports Series simulator rigs

Photo by: Paul Foster

Lando Norris, McLaren is interviewed on the Le Mans eSports Series stand

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

The winner of the Rallycross eSports final celebrates

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

For Stephen Hood, who is president of Motorsport Games, the numbers who watched the events live at the NEC, as well as tuned in online, were something he had not expected.

“We are obviously aware of the enormous growth of Esports in general, but to see our motorsport specific esports draw such crowds at Autosport International was hugely encouraging,” he said. 

“The number of people that were hooked from the moment they caught sight of the stage show… unbelievable. This is something very special.”

As momentum builds behind Esports and sim racing, the success at Autosport International is further evidence of the influence online racing is now having – and it opens doors to a whole new type of audience who can be drawn to the sport in the future.

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